Leaders from Southern states push to improve early education

Blog post Governor Steve Beshear
Governor Beshear

Our understanding about early childhood development has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. New brain research tells us that children’s brains form very rapidly early on, and their earliest experiences have lifelong effects on their likelihood to succeed. 

Now it’s time to put what we’ve learned into practice so that our young children get the best start possible.

Just as we’ve done on other education issues over the years, leaders from the 16-state region served by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Southern Regional Education Board, from Delaware to Texas, have come together to call for improvements in our region’s—and the nation’s—education opportunities. In this case, we’re calling not only for raising the quality of our state pre-K programs, but also in the ways we now serve children and families from birth to age 3.

The SREB Early Childhood Commission brought leaders with many different perspectives together over the past two years to meet with national experts and scholars on early education and brain development. We debated what we learned, and we inquired about what some states were doing to address specific challenges in early learning. Then we developed recommendations on how our states can build on the success many of our early childhood programs have seen, found in the Commission’s report, Building a Strong Foundation: State Policy for Early Childhood Education.

Push for high quality for more children

We’re not starting from scratch. In fact, SREB states have a tradition of leading the nation as pacesetters in early education. Georgia was the first state in the nation to implement universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds in 1995. Oklahoma has been a national leader in providing access to state-funded pre-K for all 4-year-olds and families who want it for nearly two decades. 

North Carolina requires its teachers in state-funded pre-K to have a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in child development. Maryland has improved its oversight of early education so that it’s no longer scattered across several state agencies and budgets—an example for states to learn from, as we recommend in our report. I’m proud to say that Kentucky has these same requirements for teacher training and has taken similar steps to improve coordination of early childhood programs.

But there’s plenty more to do. 

Some states’ pre-K programs are open to any family but need to provide better teacher and instructional quality to ensure their effectiveness. Other states don’t offer enough seats in preschool even to serve all the students from low-income familie

What our youngest children experience today lays the foundation for what they can achieve in school and in life.

Research from Virginia Tech that the Commission reviewed shows that high-quality early learning experiences can boost at-risk children’s reading and math skills, their IQ, and even later-in-life measures such as their chances for college graduation and full-time employment. 

In other words, we can invest now in healthy conditions for early childhood development, or pay later in remediation, incarceration and health-care costs.

While approaches may vary from state to state, our Commission recommends that states pursue these goals:

  • Boost the quality of programs: Set high standards for early education from birth to third grade. Evidence-based curricula should be aligned from pre-K into elementary school so that children’s learning builds over time.
  • More effective teaching: Ensure teachers have specialized training for working with young children—and require continued learning for those who work in early childhood programs.
  • Accountability for results: Measure students’ progress and prioritize funding for early education based on performance and quality.
  • Greater access: Work toward serving as many children as possible in high-quality programs—especially those who may be at risk for not being ready for school. In Kentucky, our legislature funded space for more than 5,000 new 4-years-olds to participate in pre-K programs in the 2015 school year.
  • Coordinate governance and budgets: Build a statewide policy framework to serve children from birth to age 8.

Strong returns on our investments

What our youngest children experience today lays the foundation for what they can achieve in school and in life. 

The payoff is a few years ahead—a better-educated citizenry, healthier-future adults and a productive workforce ready for tomorrow’s jobs. Nobel economist James Heckman found that for every $1 we spend on high-quality early childhood programs, we get seven to 10 times the return over a child’s lifetime. 

In Kentucky, we’ve come to understand that early learning is the cornerstone of state education policy. Improvements in early learning really should rise above today’s political fray. Each state can find its own path toward improvement. But we need to do more, and it will pay off for all of our states.

Steve Beshear, 61st governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, chaired the SREB Early Childhood Commission and served as SREB’s board chair from 2013 to 2015. 

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